A young Ashley Judd stars in “Ruby in Paradise” a 2021 re-release of a film that made waves at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival and served as a catalyst for Judd’s rise to leading lady status she capitalized on throughout the 1990’s.
“Ruby in Paradise” is a slow-moving coming of age film that follows Ruby (Judd) as she navigates her new life in Panama City Beach, Florida after she leaves her home, a small town in Tennessee in search of a fresh start and new experiences.
She gets a seemingly boring job as a retail clerk during off-season in a stereotypical beach shop selling hats and souvenirs. Although menial, Ruby takes the job seriously, trying to prove to her wealthy and overtly snobby boss, Mrs. Chamberlain (Dorothy Lyman,) and perhaps herself that she is worth something. She’s trustworthy and reliable, someone that can be counted on. As she travels through all these new life experiences, she journals them and narrates the film.
When Mrs. Chamberlain tells Ruby she has to leave for the weekend she puts her sleazy and bratty acting son, Riley (Bentley Mitchum,) in charge of the shop and gives Ruby a stern warning not to date him. Watching this film in 2021 really made me realize how many strides we have made as a society since 1993. Why would it be Ruby who would have to be “warned” to stay away from her son? Why doesn’t Mrs. Chamberlain directly tell her own son who clearly has behavioral issues not to bother Ruby? Why does Ruby accept this as treatment? Why did women at large accept this as treatment in the early 1990’s? After Riley shrewdly convinces Ruby to indeed date him the situation escalates and turns violent, leaving Ruby emotionally scarred and unemployed.
In a sequence that struck me the most, Ruby, in desperate need of a job, visits a topless club, but quickly realizes this isn’t a life she wants to lead. Even in the 1990’s Hollywood had such a positive view of strippers that I’m surprised this scene was included. In an industry that is so rife with rampant abuse of women the director, Victor Nunez, showed himself as a bright light here. Ruby, in processing her emotions and learning about herself, realized she didn’t deserve to be abused by Riley or groped by sleazy men in a topless bar off a dingy highway.
Ruby was a girl who was ahead of her time, her character study is strong. She found independence within herself, not through men who didn’t treat her well, or women who cast her aside; she fought to lead a life she was proud of, although the path to get there wasn’t easy. Even Mrs. Chamberlain who seemed to be the stereotypical 1990’s mom who thought her son could do no wrong, realized she was indeed wrong in her own thinking and even offered to re-hire Ruby.
In the latter half of the film Ruby has an interesting relationship with a local man named Mike, although a pleasant and likable enough guy Mike isn’t that serious about life or his relationship with Ruby. He prefers things to be easy, and he just wasn’t motivated enough to go outside of his comfort zone. Ruby, in stark contrast, has goals, aspirations and wants to grow. She’s far more mature than Mike and moved at a different pace, and I think a lot of people can relate to this.
Overall, my largest criticism of this film is its laborious pace. Not unlike a film like “The Wrestler” “Ruby in Paradise” takes a really, really long time to ramp up. It says a lot of important things, but it is very, very slow and I did lose my focus. This is not due to the age of the film so much as over showing the monotony of everyday life, although it seems appropriate as a re-release in the me too era I’m just unsure of how many Gen-Zers will be able to tolerate the pacing. The editing could have been tightened to have broken some of this up. Conversely, I wish there were more vehicles like this for women in modern cinema, hopefully the re-release will serve as a refreshment and motivate some producers and financiers to show the inner lives of women; because, although we have them, it often feels like we’re shouting into an empty void.
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